Written by Divya Mukand
Mamta, 19-years-old, is a young achiever. An active member of the children’s and thereafter the adolescent girls’ group in her village in the Kekdi block, Ajmer, Rajasthan, she was successful in stopping her own child marriage and also in challenging the practice. As a grassroots football coach, she trains adolescent girls. Since the last two years, Mamta has been working on a health project run by the NGO, Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS) and is also studying to be a graduate. Her dreams would never have fructified if she had succumbed to the pressure of an early marriage. Mamta says that the support of her peers, safe spaces where she could discuss and explore her aspirations and opportunities to enhance her esteem, made it possible for her to negotiate such decisions. Across the country, countless girls like Mamta struggle to explore and develop their potential before and after marriage. India has seen a steady decline in the rate of child marriage from 54 per cent in 2005-06 to 27 per cent in 2015-16 (NFHS data). Yet, despite a law that bans marriage of girls under the age of 18 years, the country continues to have the highest absolute number of child brides in the world.
On June 23, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development set up a task force to examine matters pertaining to the age of motherhood — particularly, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) and nutritional levels. The committee had a mandate to provide recommendations for legislative response. One of the implicit agenda that caught the attention of civil society was the plan to amend the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years, with the intent of delaying the age of first conception.
As the task force started inviting prominent academicians, legal experts and leaders of civil society organisations for deliberations, one key group remained invisible — the young people of India who, in fact, would be the most impacted by this decision. With a vision to amplify young voices and ensure their right to be heard, 96 civil society organisations from 15 states across India initiated a process to understand what young people thought about this proposed change. Simultaneously, they reached out to the task force to make a case for hearing young people directly. On July 24, a report of the consultations with 2,480 young people was submitted to the task force.
The variety of responses from 2,480 young people (12-22 years), mostly from impoverished rural areas and urban slums from Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, OBCs and minority communities highlighted their understanding of the complex issue of marriage as an institution (https://www.concernedforworkingchildren.org/). A large number pointed out how poverty, lack of options, agency, educational and employment opportunities affect them, making early marriage seem like a viable option to parents and often to the young people themselves. They spoke of girls being seen as a burden and a liability and how that impacts their lives. They referred to the criminalisation of consensual sexual relationships between young people, the impact of COVID on their lives, and what needs to be done to support them in these times.
The common thread emerging was the young people’s lack of choices and the ability to make aspirations and decisions on matters which impact their lives — marriage, relationships, education and career spaces. Based on these interactions the following steps are recommended
First, extension of the Right to Education Act till Class 12. The New Education Policy does mandate this. The need now is to develop free and good quality education with adequate infrastructure close to people’s homes. The respondents had also pressed on the importance of comprehensive sexuality education in schools. Two, the availability of safe jobs close to the villages after free training opportunities to develop different skills.
Three, sexuality and the space to explore the same without punitive consequences. According to the youngsters, if the minimum age of marriage was increased, while the age of consent remains 18, the fear and stigma around premarital sex would make access to contraceptives and safe abortion services very difficult for girls. For instance, the legal apparatus is mostly invoked when young people choose their own partners and seldom when the marriage is arranged
Four, access to information for safe sexual relations. Most girls, as well as boys, wanted smaller families (two or less children), time to get to know their partners after marriage and stated that this decision should ideally be made by both partners when they are ready physically as well as mentally. They talked about the pressure to conform to societal norms.
Most importantly, the respondents were categorical that child marriages will not stop if an amendment is made to the law without bringing about tangible changes – with parents not ready to bear the expenses of girls for long, the practice will go underground and possibilities of documents being forged cannot be ruled out. But we were also told that if “marriages are postponed to 21 years, some of us may have the opportunity to complete our degree, take up a job, become independent and then get married. It will enhance our support. Many girls would graduate and go for a job and contribute to the family’s earning.”
It is clear that young people desire investment in enabling conditions — quality, safe and accessible education, skill development that translates to secure employment and access to information and services for contraception and safe abortions. This would be more effective than the pressure, if any, created by law. At a time when the COVID pandemic and the resultant economic crisis is reducing the opportunities for young people, the government needs to channelise its efforts towards poverty eradication and reviving employment avenues for young people, rather than changing laws. As one young girl said, “the government should leave the decision of marriage on us. It needs to create good opportunities and support services, the rest will all fall in place.”
The writer is with Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage